Much of what Americans believe about foreign aid spending is wrong. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 1,505 people found most couldn’t accurately place the percentage of its federal budget the U.S. spends on foreign aid. The average amount they guessed is 26 percent; the answer is less than 1 percent. Only one in every 20 people answered the question correctly.
Where do these misconceptions come from?
The U.S. spends more in net amount than any other country on foreign aid; the total came to some $32 billion in 2014. However, when looking at aid spending as a percentage of gross national income (GNI) , the amount the country and residents abroad take in as income, the U.S. spends a mere 0.19 percent of the wealth it receives each year in aid.
The American contribution falls flat behind larger benefactors like Sweden which donates 1.1 percent of its GNI, or Luxembourg at 1.07 percent and Norway at 0.99 percent.
The misconceptions of Americans regarding foreign aid are showing no signs of clearing up on their own. Another poll conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org in 2010 found the median estimate Americans believe their country spent on foreign aid was 25 percent. When the poll asked them what would be an “appropriate” amount, the median answer was 10 percent.
These findings might even be humorous if so many people around the world weren’t living amid crushing levels of poverty. The erroneous views Americans hold of foreign aid spending have a direct impact on millions of people who struggle each day with hunger and a lack of economic opportunities.
Americans also host conflicting views regarding foreign aid based on their party affiliation. A survey conducted by yougov.com in 2016 revealed 49 percent of Americans identifying as Democrats believed U.S. aid should go to the poorest countries, while 59 percent of those identifying as Republicans believed aid should go to countries who support U.S. foreign policy.
Overall, 39 percent of Americans believed in aid for poor countries and 41 percent believed aid should be directed based on foreign policy support.
Our misconceptions of foreign aid influence how we think about the topic. In the Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 56 percent of those interviewed believed the U.S. spends too much on foreign aid.
However, when presented with the actual situation, namely the fact that the U.S. spends less than 1 percent of its $4 trillion federal budget on foreign aid, the poll found the number of Americans who think the U.S. is overspending on the aid dropped to 28 percent.
The wording of the questions also makes a difference. When the poll posed the question to Americans, “Do you think the U.S. is now spending too much, too little, or about the right amount on foreign aid?” 56 percent of respondents said too much.
However, when researchers modified the question to ask, “Do you think the U.S. is now spending too much, too little, or about the right amount in efforts to improve health for people in developing countries?” the percentage of those saying too much dropped to 28 percent.
Despite perceptions of corruption, elected officials tend to act in accordance with public opinion when faced with overwhelming support for spending measures. By dispelling the myths surrounding U.S. foreign aid spending, aid legislation will face less opposition as more Americans come forward to support it.
– Will Sweger